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Curr. Issues Mol. Biol. 7: 197–212.
Online journal at
The Evolution of Flea-borne Transmission in
Yersinia pestis
B. Joseph Hinnebusch
Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis, Rocky
Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health,
Hamilton, MT 59840 USA
Transmission by fleabite is a recent evolutionary adaptation
that distinguishes Yersinia pestis, the agent of plague,
from Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and all other enteric
bacteria. The very close genetic relationship between Y.
pestis and Y. pseudotuberculosis indicates that just a few
discrete genetic changes were sufficient to give rise to fleaborne transmission. Y. pestis exhibits a distinct infection
phenotype in its flea vector, and a transmissible infection
depends on genes that are specifically required in the
flea, but not the mammal. Transmission factors identified
to date suggest that the rapid evolutionary transition of
Y. pestis to flea-borne transmission within the last 1,500
to 20,000 years involved at least three steps: acquisition
of the two Y. pestis-specific plasmids by horizontal gene
transfer; and recruitment of endogenous chromosomal
genes for new functions. Perhaps reflective of the recent
adaptation, transmission of Y. pestis by fleas is inefficient,
and this likely imposed selective pressure favoring the
evolution of increased virulence in this pathogen.
Pathogenic bacteria must overcome several physiological
and immunological challenges to successfully infect even
a single type of host, such as a mammal. It is remarkable,
then, that bacteria transmitted by blood-feeding
arthropods are capable of infecting two very different
hosts during their life cycle: an invertebrate (usually an
insect or tick) and a mammal. As if this were not enough
of a challenge, it is not sufficient that an arthropod-borne
bacterium successfully infect both vector and host. It
must establish a transmissible infection in both; that is, it
must infect the vector in such a way as to be transmitted
during a blood meal, and it must infect the mammal in
a way that allows uptake by a blood-feeding arthropod.
This feat of evolution has occurred relatively rarely, but
nonetheless arthropod-borne transmission has developed
independently in a phylogenetically diverse group of
microorganisms, including the rickettsiae, spirochetes in
the genus Borrelia, and the Gram-negative bacteria.
Compared to the ancient relationship of rickettsiae
and spirochetes with arthropods, the vector relationship
between Y. pestis and fleas is new. Population genetics
and comparative genomics analyses indicate that Y. pestis
is a clonal variant of Y. pseudotuberculosis that diverged
only within the last 1,500 to 20,000 years (Achtman et
For correspondence: [email protected]
© Horizon Scientific Press. Offprints from
al., 1999; Hinchcliffe et al., 2003; Chain et al., 2004).
Presumably, the change from the food- and water-borne
transmission of the Y. pseudotuberculosis ancestor to
the flea-borne transmission of Y. pestis occurred during
this evolutionarily short period of time. The monophyletic
relationship of these two sister-species implies that the
genetic changes that underlie the ability of Y. pestis to use
the flea for its transmission vector are relatively few and
discrete. Therefore, the Y. pseudotuberculosis –Y. pestis
species complex provides an interesting case study in
the evolution of arthropod-borne transmission. Some of
the genetic changes that led to flea-borne transmission
have been identified using the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis
as model organism, and an evolutionary pathway can
now be surmised. Reliance on the flea for transmission
also imposed new selective pressures on Y. pestis that
help explain the evolution of increased virulence in this
Y. pestis–flea interactions
There are an estimated 2,500 species and subspecies
of fleas that constitute 220 genera and 15 families
in the insect order Siphonaptera (Lewis, 1998). Of
these, approximately 80 species, associated with some
200 species of wild rodents, have been found to be
infected with Y. pestis in nature, or to be susceptible to
experimental infection (Pollitzer, 1954). Accordingly, the
ecology of plague is extremely complex, involving many
different rodent-flea cycles.
Different species of fleas vary greatly in their
ability to transmit Y. pestis, at least under laboratory
conditions; some species, such as the common cat flea
Ctenocephalides felis, are incapable of transmission.
Wheeler and Douglas (1945) and Burroughs (1947)
developed a mathematical model to estimate the vector
efficiency of different flea species that took into account
i) infection potential (the percentage of fleas becoming
infected after feeding on a septicemic animal); ii) vector
potential (the percentage of infected fleas which become
infective or blocked, i.e., develop a transmissible infection
as described below); and iii) the transmission potential
(the average number of successful transmissions per
flea). Kartman (1957) later added two more factors:
iv) the life span of infective (blocked) fleas; and v) the
field prevalence index (the average number of fleas per
species per rodent or rodent nest). By these measures
an experimental vector efficiency could be calculated for
different fleas (Wheeler and Douglas, 1945; Burroughs,
1947; Kartman, 1957; Kartman and Prince, 1956).
These comparisons have sometimes been intriguing and
enigmatic. For example, the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis
has most frequently been identified as the most efficient
vector, yet the closely related Xenopsylla astia is a poor
vector (Hirst, 1923). The physiological mechanisms that
account for differences in vector efficiency among different
198 Hinnebusch
���������������������� �
Table 1. Flea-specific factors which might affect the ability of Y. pestis
to produce a transmissible infection
Flea anatomy and physiology
pH, redox potential, osmolarity, etc.
Biochemical composition of host blood
Digestive enzymes, digestive byproducts
Endogenous microbial flora
Frequency of feeding and defecation
Insect immunity components
Size (volume)
Number, density, length, and shape of spines
Rate of opening and closing during feeding
Hydrodynamic forces generated during feeding
Insect immunity components
Ambient temperature
Flea life span after infection
flea species are not known, but some possible factors are
described in the following sections and listed in Table 1.
A high degree of vector specificity is characteristic
of many arthropod-borne agents. For example, human
malaria is transmitted by anopheline but not culicine
mosquitoes, different subspecies of Leishmania are
transmitted by different sandfly species, and the closely
related North American species of Borrelia spirochetes
that cause relapsing fever are each transmitted by a
different species of Ornithodoros tick (Sacks and Kamhawi,
2001; Barbour and Hayes, 1986). Whether the same coevolutionary process is occurring in Y. pestis remains to
be demonstrated, but Russian researchers have proposed
that, at least for some natural plague cycles, discrete
triads of flea species, rodent, and subspecies or strain of
Y. pestis have co-evolved (Anisimov et al., 2004).
The flea gut environment
Y. pestis infection of the flea is confined to the digestive
tract, which is depicted in Fig. 1. Storage, digestion, and
absorption of the blood meal all occur in the simple midgut
made of a single layer of columnar epithelial cells and
associated basement membrane. The proventriculus,
a valve at the base of the esophagus that guards the
entrance to the midgut, is central to the transmission
mechanism. The interior of the proventriculus is arrayed
with densely packed rows of inward-directing spines,
which are coated with an acellular layer of cuticle, the
same material that makes up the insect exoskeleton (Fig.
2). In X. cheopis, there are a total of 264 proventricular
spines in the male and 450 in the female (Munshi, 1960).
The proventricular valve is normally tightly closed by
layers of surrounding muscle. During feeding periods,
however, the proventricular muscles rhythmically open
and close the valve in concert with a series of three sets
of pump muscles located in the flea’s head to propel
Fig. 1. (A) Digestive tract anatomy of fleas. E = esophagus; PV =
proventriculus; MG = midgut; HG = hindgut. The muscles that pump
blood into the midgut (PM) and the malpighian tubules (MT) are also
indicated. (B) Digestive tract dissected from a blocked X. cheopis flea.
Arrows indicate the large aggregate of Y. pestis that fills and blocks the
proventriculus and an independent bacterial aggregate in the midgut.
The Y. pestis aggregates are surrounded by a dark colored extracellular
matrix. Bar = 0.25 mm.
blood into the midgut and to keep it from leaking back
out. Fleas usually live on or in close association with
their hosts and take small but frequent (every few days)
blood meals. Digestion of the blood meal begins quickly,
resulting in hemolysis and liquefaction of ingested blood
cells by six hours (Vaughan and Azad, 1993). During the
next two to three days, the blood meal digest is browncolored, viscous, and contains many large and small lipid
droplets, but is eventually processed to a compact dark
residue. Fleas defecate partially digested portions of their
blood meals, which are used as a food source by flea
larvae. Unlike other blood-feeding arthropods, fleas do
not secrete a chitinous peritrophic membrane around the
blood meal.
Few details are known about flea gut physiology
and associated environmental conditions in the digestive
tract. A probable midgut pH of 6 to 7 has been cited
(Wigglesworth, 1972), but other basic parameters such
as osmotic pressure and redox potential are unknown.
The biochemical composition may initially reflect that of
hemolyzed blood, but is subject to rapid change due to
selective absorption of certain nutrients, ions, and water.
Insect midgut epithelium secretes a variety of digestive
enzymes that are similar to those of vertebrates, including
trypsin, chymotrypsin, amino- and carboxypeptidases,
cathepsins, lysozymes, glycosidases, and lipases (Terra
and Ferreira, 1994). Mammalian blood is composed
���������������������� �
Y. pestis Transmission Factors 199
The midgut epithelium of mosquitoes and the blood
sucking fly Stomoxys calcitrans has been shown to be an
immune-competent tissue, and the presence of bacteria
in the blood meal of these insects induces the secretion of
antimicrobial peptides into the gut lumen (Dimopoulos et
al., 1997; Lehane et al., 1997). Whether this occurs in fleas
is unknown. At any rate, Y. pestis appears to be inherently
resistant to the flea immune response (Hinnebusch et al.,
1996; and unpublished data).
Fig. 2. Proventricular spines of Xenopsylla cheopis. Side (A) and
front (B) views of an uninfected proventriculus viewed by fluorescence
microscopy. The proventricular spines are covered with cuticle, which is
autofluorescent. (C) Scanning electron microscopy of the interior of an
uninfected proventriculus. Bar = 5 μm.
principally of protein and lipid, and lipids are a major
energy source for hematophagous arthropods. Lipids are
relatively insoluble in water, and the mechanism of their
solubilization and absorption in fleas is unknown.
It is in this active digestive milieu that Y. pestis lives
in the flea. These conditions must be relatively hostile
and refractory to colonization, because fleas have rather
limited normal digestive tract flora, and few pathogens are
transmitted by fleas (Savalev et al., 1978; Beard et al.,
1990). Besides Y. pestis, flea-borne pathogens include
Bartonella henselae, the agent of cat-scratch disease
and bacillary angiomatosis, and Rickettsia typhi and
Rickettsia felis, members of the typhus group (Chomel
et al., 1996; Azad et al., 1997). The Gram-negative
bacterium Francisella tularensis is also associated with
fleas, although the importance of flea vectors in the overall
ecology of tularemia is unclear (Hopla, 1974). Fleas have
also been implicated in transmission of the poxvirus that
causes myxomatosis in rabbits (Chapple and Lewis,
1965). Vaughan and Azad (1993) have hypothesized
that the rapid digestive process of fleas and lice is not
conducive to the development of eukaryotic parasites, but
that it can be better tolerated by prokaryotes.
Biological transmission of Y. pestis by fleas: the
proventricular blockage model
The general mechanism of Y. pestis transmission by
fleas was described by Bacot and Martin (1914). They
observed that in infected X. cheopis and Ceratophyllus
fasciatus fleas, solid masses of Y. pestis could fill the
lumen of the proventriculus and obstruct the flow of blood
(Fig. 1B). These fleas made persistent, vigorous attempts
to feed, but could not pump blood past the blocked
proventriculus. Instead, the esophagus became distended
with blood which was then partially refluxed back into the
bite site due to contraction and relaxation of the cibarial
and pharyngeal pumps. This phenomenon correlated
with efficient transmission. Based on their observations,
Bacot and Martin proposed the proventricular blockageregurgitation mechanism for plague transmission.
According to this model, blockage of the proventriculus by
a mass of Y. pestis precedes transmission, and Y. pestis
is conveyed to the bite site by regurgitation when blocked
fleas attempted to feed. Bacot (1915) later amended this
model by proposing that fleas with only partial obstruction
of the proventriculus were actually better transmitters.
Partially blocked fleas can still pump blood into the
midgut through an open channel in the proventriculus.
The bacterial growth prevents complete closing of the
valve, however, so that blood mixed with Y. pestis from
the midgut is able to flow back out the proventriculus into
the bite site. This can happen because during flea feeding
the pumping action is not continuous, but stops for short
intervals. Transmission as a result of partial blockage was
an important addendum to the model because complete
proventricular blockage does not readily develop in some
flea species that are good vectors of plague (Burroughs,
1947; Pollitzer, 1954). According to the Bacot model,
complete blockage of the proventriculus is not necessary
for efficient transmission; partial interference with its
valvular function is sufficient.
Mechanical transmission of Y. pestis by fleas. Although
several investigators have established that biological
transmission (requiring Y. pestis growth in the digestive
tract to produce a proventricular infection) is the only
reliable means of transmission (Burroughs, 1947; Pollitzer,
1954), there is evidence that mechanical transmission
may also play a role in the ecology of plague. For
mechanical transmission, infection of the vector is not
necessary. It is only necessary that septicemia levels
are high and that Y. pestis survive on the blood-stained
mouthparts of fleas between consecutive feedings. For
example, X. cheopis and the wild rodent flea Malaraeus
telchinum allowed to feed en masse on uninfected mice
one day after feeding on a highly septicemic mouse
200 Hinnebusch
consistently transmitted the disease (Burroughs, 1947).
Since that time interval is too short for proventricular
infection to develop, transmission presumably occurred
by mechanical transference of bacteria on contaminated
mouthparts. The phenomenon of mechanical or mass
transmission provides a potential mechanism for fleas
that do not develop proventricular blockage readily, such
as M. telchinum and the human flea Pulex irritans, to
transmit Y. pestis during epidemics. Human to human
transmission via P. irritans has been hypothesized to have
contributed to the plague pandemics of medieval Europe
(Beaucournu, 1999). Because mechanical transmission
does not rely on specific interactions with the vector, it will
not be considered further here.
Y. pestis transmission factors
A central hypothesis, now substantiated by experimental
evidence, is that bacteria that cycle between a mammal
and an arthropod express distinct subsets of genes in
their two hosts. Genes specifically required to infect the
vertebrate host are referred to as virulence factors, and
the analogous genes required to produce a transmissible
infection in the arthropod vector have been termed
transmission factors (Hinnebusch et al., 1996; Paskewitz,
1997). Many virulence factor genes of Y. pestis that are
required to infect and cause disease in the mammal have
been identified and studied. In contrast, the genetic factors
required in the insect host have been relatively neglected.
Nevertheless, some of the genetic factors of Y. pestis that
are specifically involved in flea-borne transmission have
been identified (Table 2).
The Yersinia murine toxin: a phospholipase D required
for flea gut colonization
The Yersinia murine toxin (Ymt) was described in the 1950s
as a protein fraction of Y. pestis that was toxic to mice and
rats (Ajl et al., 1955), so it has universally been considered
to be a virulence factor. Brown and Montie (1977) presented
evidence that Ymt is a β-adrenergic receptor antagonist,
blocking epinephrine-induced mobilization of glucose and
fatty acids. In mice, Ymt causes circulatory failure due to
vascular collapse, resulting in death in ten hours with an
LD50 of 0.2 to 3.7 μg (Schär and Meyer, 1956). Ymt is not
toxic to guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, or primates even in
enormous doses, however (Montie and Ajl, 1970). Murine
toxin was described as a cell-associated protein that is
only released upon bacterial death, and, correspondingly,
its effects are seen only in the late stages of septicemic
murine plague, when the animal is already succumbing
to the disease (Montie and Ajl, 1970). Interestingly,
recombinant Ymt protein produced in and purified from
Escherichia coli is nontoxic for mice, whereas native
Ymt purified from Y. pestis is toxic (Hinnebusch et al.,
2000; and unpublished data). The explanation for this is
not known, but Walker (1967) suggested that synergism
between Ymt, endotoxin, and possibly other Y. pestis
factors was responsible for murine toxicity.
Sequence analysis showed that the Y. pestis ymt
gene mapped to the 100-kb pFra plasmid and encodes
a 61-kDa protein that is a member of a newly described
family of phospholipase D enzymes found in all kingdoms
of life: animals, plants, fungi, and eukaryotic viruses
as well as bacteria (Cherepanov et al., 1991; Ponting
and Kerr, 1996). All members of this PLD family have
two copies of a signature HKD (HxKx4Dx6GG/S) motif,
which come together to form the catalytic site for binding
and hydrolysis of the phosphodiester bond (Stuckey
and Dixon, 1999). The Y. pestis Ymt has classic PLD
activity, as shown by its ability to cleave the polar head
group from phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanol
amine, and other phospholipids. Ymt is also capable of
transphosphatidlyation of phospholipid with an alcohol
acceptor, a second characteristic PLD reaction (Rudolph
et al., 1999). Because of this proven biochemistry, it has
been proposed that the Y. pestis ymt gene should be
renamed pldA (Carniel, 2003).
Despite the known toxic effects of murine toxin, a ymt
deletion mutant of Y. pestis was essentially fully virulent
for mice (Drozdov et al., 1995; Du et al., 1995; Hinnebusch
et al., 2000). Thus, Ymt is not required for morbidity or
mortality, even in mice, but only adds insult to injury. This
likely reflects the fact that Ymt is not a classic exotoxin,
but is a cytoplasmic enzyme that is only released upon
bacterial cell death and lysis. The full virulence of Ymt– Y.
pestis, and other results showing that ymt expression is
downregulated at 37°C (Du et al., 1995), suggested that
the principle biological function of this PLD is not as a
virulence factor.
A role for Ymt in transmission was first indicated by a
study evaluating the fate of plasmid-cured Y. pestis strains
in the flea. Whereas the 9.5-kb pPst and the 70-kb pYV
virulence plasmid were not required for normal infection
and blockage of X. cheopis, strains lacking the 100-kb
pFra plasmid failed to block the fleas (Hinnebusch et al.,
1998a). Complementation of the pFra– strains with the
ymt gene alone fully restored normal ability to infect and
block fleas. Specific Ymt– Y. pestis mutants were used for
further analysis (Hinnebusch et al., 2002b). Within hours
of being taken up in a blood meal by a flea, Ymt– Y. pestis
assumed an aberrant, spheroplast-like cell morphology,
and then rapidly disappeared from the flea midgut within
the first day after infection. Rarely, the Ymt– bacteria
established an initial foothold in the proventriculus, which
is part of the foregut and physically separated from
Table 2. Y. pestis genes important for flea-borne transmission
Present in:
Y. pestis Y. pstb
Function in Y. pestis and role in transmission
pFra plasmid
Phospholipase D, survival in flea midgut
hmsHFSR, T
Extracellular matrix synthesis, biofilm formation, infection and
blockage of the proventriculus
pPst plasmid
Plasminogen activator, dissemination from fleabite site
Y. pestis Transmission Factors 201
the midgut by the stomodeal valve except during the
few minutes per week that the flea is actively feeding.
Secluded in the proventriculus, the mutants could grow
normally and eventually cause blockage. Because the
proventriculus is rarely the primary site of infection, but is
usually seeded secondarily from a prior midgut infection,
the Ymt– mutant infected < 5% and blocked < 0.5% of
fleas, compared to the normal infection and blockage
rates of 50–60% and 25–45%, respectively (Hinnebusch
et al., 2002b). Remarkably, introduction of the ymt
gene into Y. pseudotuberculosis and E. coli significantly
enhanced their ability to colonize the flea midgut also.
Thus, Ymt may have a similar substrate and mechanism
of action in both Yersinia and E. coli. Members of the
PLD family of enzymes to which Ymt belongs are found
in many different cell types and can have many different
functions. Serendipitously, the PLD activity of Ymt
enhances survival of Gram-negative bacteria in the flea
midgut. Acquisition of this single gene by Y. pestis would
have been a crucial step in the evolution of the flea-borne
route of transmission.
Models for the protective mechanism of Ymt
How might an intracellular PLD protect Y. pestis in the
flea midgut? The first option to consider is that Ymt might
be secreted or released from lysed bacteria in the flea,
and degrade an external cytotoxic agent in the midgut
environment. Three types of experimental results argue
against that: 1) Addition of exogenous Ymt protein to the
infectious blood meal did not enhance the survival of Ymt–
Y. pestis in the flea gut. 2) Coinfection of fleas with an
equal mixture of Ymt+ and Ymt– Y. pestis did not result in
a coequal infection pattern. If active PLD were secreted,
one might expect that enzyme from Ymt+ bacteria would
also protect Ymt– bacteria in the flea gut, resulting in
infections consisting of an equal mixture of both strains.
Instead, in these experiments the Ymt– mutant again
survived primarily in the proventriculus. In the midgut,
it persisted only in small clusters that were embedded
within larger aggregates of wild-type bacteria. 3) In
digestive tracts dissected from fleas infected with Y. pestis
that synthesized a Ymt-GFP fusion protein, fluorescence
localized only to the cytoplasm and was never detected
extracellularly (Hinnebusch et al., 2002b).
An intracellular PLD conceivably could protect Y.
pestis in the flea gut either by modifying an endogenous
membrane component to make the bacteria impervious to
the cytotoxic agent (prophylaxis model), or by neutralizing
the agent, directly or indirectly, after it interacts with the
bacteria (antidote model). In the prophylaxis model, the
outer membrane of Ymt– Y. pestis would be differentially
affected in the flea gut. Loss of outer membrane integrity
could lead to the observed spheroplasty, because
lysozymes are commonly secreted by insect midgut
epithelium (Terra and Ferreira, 1994). Evidence for this
model was sought by analyzing the outer membrane
composition of Ymt+ and Ymt– Y. pestis. Quantitative
phosphodiester-linked substitutions of lipid A revealed no
differences. The mutant was also no more susceptible
than the parent Y. pestis to polymixin B, SDS and EDTA,
cationic detergents, and other agents that target the
Gram-negative outer membrane. Attempts to mimic the
flea gut environment by culturing the bacteria in triturated
flea gut contents; in whole or sonicated mouse blood
containing proteases, lipase, and lysozyme; or under
osmotic and oncotic pressure, oxidative stress, or low pH
likewise failed to reveal any difference between mutant
and wild type strains (B. J. Hinnebusch, unpublished). In
sum, no phenotypic difference between Ymt– and Ymt+ Y.
pestis has been detected outside of the flea gut.
Alternatively, according to the antidote model, the
toxic agent in the flea gut would interact with both Ymt–
and Ymt+ Y. pestis, but its effects then be neutralized by
Ymt. In many bacteria, exposure to harmful environments
induces autolytic pathways that result in self-digestion
of the bacterial cell wall by endogenous peptidoglycan
hydrolases (Lewis, 2000). The environmental stimuli,
signal transduction mechanisms, and gene expression
pathways leading to this programmed cell death are
incompletely understood in bacteria. If an agent in the flea
gut stimulates Y. pestis autolysis and leads to the observed
rapid spheroplast formation, intracellular Ymt activity may
block or redirect a step in the autolytic pathway. Such a
role would be analogous to that of mammalian PLD, which
is an intracellular effector in multiple signal transduction
cascades (Gomez-Cambronero and Keire, 1998).
Whichever model is correct, the agent in the flea gut
that is harmful to Ymt– Y. pestis appears to derive from a
digestive product of blood plasma. Elimination from the
flea gut during the first 24 hours after infection occurred if
either filtered mouse plasma or whole blood was the source
of the infectious meal fed to the fleas. However, if fleas
were infected by feeding on an artificial plasma substrate
consisting of PBS, pH 7.4, containing 7% bovine serum
albumin, 6 mM glucose, 12 mM sodium bicarbonate,
10 mM MgCl2, 2.5 mM CaCl2, and 1 mM citric acid, the
Ymt– Y. pestis survived as well as the Ymt+ parent strain
during the first 24 hours after infection. Identical results
were obtained when washed mouse red blood cells were
added to the artificial plasma substrate (Hinnebusch et
al., 2002b). The fact that the artificial plasma meals were
digested by the fleas further suggests that flea digestive
enzymes, or the digestive milieu per se, do not directly
harm the mutant. The mutant also survived as well as
wild type Y. pestis after injection into the flea hemocoel.
These results implicate a blood plasma digestive product
as the cytotoxic agent, but the native substrate of the Y.
pestis PLD and its protective mechanism remain to be
The hms genes and the biofilm model of proventricular
One of the first temperature-dependent phenotypes
described for Y. pestis was the formation of densely
pigmented colonies when incubated at 28°C or less on
media containing hemin or the structurally analogous
dye Congo red (Jackson and Burrows, 1956a; Surgalla
and Beesley, 1969). The phenotype is not due to the
production of a pigment by Y. pestis, but rather to the avid
adsorption of the exogenous hemin or Congo red to the
outer membrane (Perry et al., 1993). Despite the fact that
the phenotype was not expressed at 37°C, pigmentation
correlated with virulence. Spontaneous nonpigmented
202 Hinnebusch
mutants had greatly reduced virulence for mice after
peripheral routes of infection unless iron salts were
injected simultaneously (Jackson and Burrows, 1956b).
Further study of nonpigmented Y. pestis strains showed
that they did not grow in iron-chelated media in vitro, failed
to synthesize several iron-regulated proteins, and did not
interact with pesticin, the bacteriocin encoded on the pPst
plasmid (Brubaker, 1969; Sikkema and Brubaker, 1987,
The reason for the wide range of physiological effects
associated with loss of pigmentation gradually emerged
from a series of molecular genetics analyses. Robert Perry
and colleagues used transposon mutagenesis to identify
a 9.1-kb chromosomal locus required for the pigmentation
phenotype (Lillard et al., 1997). Nucleotide sequence of this
region, termed the hemin storage (hms) locus, revealed
a 4-gene operon, hmsHFRS. Two unlinked genes, hmsT
and hmsP, were later found to be essential for the normal
pigmentation phenotype (Hare and McDonough, 1999;
Jones et al., 1999; Kirillina et al., 2004). Concurrently,
investigations by several groups into the iron-regulated
proteins synthesized by pigmented Y. pestis culminated
in the characterization of the Yersinia high-pathogenicity
island (HPI), which encodes a siderophore-based iron
acquisition system (for recent reviews see Lesic and
Carniel, 2004; Perry and Fetherston, 2004). A key unifying
discovery was reported by Fetherston et al. (1992) showing
that most nonpigmented Y. pestis mutants resulted from
spontaneous deletion of a 102-kb segment of the Y. pestis
chromosome that was termed the pigmentation (Pgm)
locus. The 102-kb Pgm locus contains not only the hms
genes, but also the Yersinia HPI. It is flanked by IS100
elements, and homologous recombination between these
extensive direct repeat sequences likely accounts for
the high spontaneous deletion rate (10–5 to 10–3) of the
entire 102-kb segment (Hare et al., 1999; Fetherston and
Perry, 1994). Thus, elimination of this large locus by a
single deletion event results not only in the nonpigmented
(Hms–) phenotype, but also in decreased virulence due to
concomitant loss of the HPI. Not all nonpigmented mutants
result from the loss of the entire 102-kb segment, however.
The existence of certain nonpigmented hmsHFSRnegative, HPI-positive Y. pestis strains indicated that the
hmsHFRS locus could be autonomously deleted and that
pigmentation and iron acquisition phenotypes are clearly
separable (Iteman et al., 1993; Buchrieser et al., 1998).
The incidental linkage of the hmsHFRS locus and the HPI
within the same deletion-prone segment accounts for the
long-held consideration of pigmentation as a virulence
determinant, reinforced by referring to the entire 102-kb
segment as the Pgm locus. However, the connection
between pigmentation per se and virulence turns out to be
merely “guilt by association” with the HPI. In retrospect, the
temperature-dependence of the pigmentation phenotype
provided an important clue as to its true biological role.
As noted previously, pigmentation develops only at
temperatures less than about 28°C, a temperature that
matches the flea environment. It is not detected at 37°C,
the mammalian body temperature. In fact, nonpigmented
Y. pestis strains containing specific loss-of-function
mutation of the hms genes are fully virulent, at least in
mice, and the hypothesis that hemin storage is important
nutritionally has also been disproven (Hinnebusch et al.,
1996; Lillard et al., 1999). In contrast, nonpigmented Y.
pestis strains lacking a functional hmsHFRS locus, or
the entire 102-kb Pgm locus, were completely unable
to produce proventricular blockage in X. cheopis fleas,
although they survived in and established a chronic
infection of the midgut at the same rate as the isogenic
pigmented Y. pestis. The ability of Pgm– Y. pestis to infect
and block the proventriculus could be completely restored
by reintroducing the hmsHFRS genes alone, indicating
that the HPI and other genes in the 102-kb Pgm locus are
not required in the flea (Hinnebusch et al., 1996). Earlier,
working with genetically undefined strains, Bibikova (1977)
correlated the pigmentation phenotype with the ability to
cause proventricular blockage in X. cheopis; and Kutyrev
et al. (1992) reported that a nonpigmented but pesticin
sensitive and virulent Y. pestis strain failed to survive in
the vole flea Nosopsyllus laeviceps. Whether physiological
differences between the two flea species account for the
ability of nonpigmented Y. pestis to colonize X. cheopis
but not N. laeviceps is unknown.
Role of the hms genes: Production of a Y. pestis biofilm
required for proventricular blockage. Ironically, given its
close phylogenetic relationship with enteric pathogens,
Y. pestis does not penetrate or even adhere to the flea
midgut epithelium, but remains confined to the lumen of
the digestive tract. Because Y. pestis is not invasive in the
flea, it is at constant risk of being eliminated by peristalsis
and excretion in the feces. In fact, approximately half of X.
cheopis fleas spontaneously rid themselves of infection
in this way even if they feed on highly septicemic blood
(Pollitzer, 1954; Hinnebusch et al., 1996). Success or failure
in stable colonization of the flea gut depends on the ability
of the bacteria to produce aggregates that are too large
to be excreted (Fig. 1B). Both Hms+ and Hms– Y. pestis
are able to do this, and so achieve comparable infection
rates in X. cheopis. However, transmission to a new host
further requires that Y. pestis, which is nonmotile, move
against the direction of blood flow when the flea feeds.
As described above, this is accomplished by infecting the
proventriculus, interfering with its valvular action in such
a way as to generate backflow of blood into the bite site.
The hms genes are required for proventricular infection,
and recent evidence suggests that they synthesize an
extracellular matrix required for biofilm formation.
HmsH and HmsF were characterized as surfaceexposed outer membrane proteins (HmsF also contains
a lipid attachment site typical of a lipoprotein), and HmsR,
HmsR, and HmsT contain transmembrane domains
and appear to be inner membrane proteins (Parkhill et
al., 2001; Pendrak and Perry, 1993; Perry et al., 2004),
but the first predictive clue as to the function of the hms
genes came from database searches showing that they
are similar to glycosyl transferase and polysaccharide
deacetylase genes in other bacteria that are required to
produce extracellular polysaccharides (Fig. 3). Notably,
the E. coli operon pgaABCD is homologous to Y. pestis
hmsHFRS; pgaC and pgaD restore pigmentation to Y.
pestis hmsR and hmsS mutants, respectively, and the
adjacent ycdT gene is an hmsT homolog (Lillard et al.,
1997; Jones et al., 1999; Wang et al., 2004). The four
Y. pestis Transmission Factors 203
Fig. 3. Comparison of the ica, hms, and pga operons of S. epidermidis, Y. pestis, and E. coli, respectively. Numbers indicate the percent amino acid
similarity of the predicted products of Y. pestis hms genes with ica, pga, and ycd gene products. Single asterisks indicate polysaccharide deacetylase
domains, double asterisks indicate glycosyl transferase domains, and GGDEF indicates diguanylate cyclase domains.
pga gene products are predicted to be outer surface
proteins that synthesize extracellular poly-β-1,6-N-acetylD-glucosamine (PGA) that is required for biofilm formation
(Wang et al., 2004; Itoh et al., 2005). Similarity was also
detected between hmsR and hmsF and two genes in the
ica (intercellular adhesion) operon of Staphylococcus
epidermidis that is required to synthesize a linear β-1,6-Nacetyl-D-glucosamine polymer called the polysaccharide
intercellular adhesin (PIA) (Heilmann et al., 1996; Lillard
et al., 1999;). PIA is an extracellular polysaccharide that
leads to bacterial cell-cell aggregation and is required for
the formation of staphylococcal biofilms. Interestingly, PIA
as well as the extracellular polysaccharide associated
with several other bacterial biofilms binds Congo red
(Heilmann and Götz, 1998; Weiner et al., 1999). The ica
operon consists of four genes (icaADBC). HmsR has 39%
identity and 58% amino acid sequence similarity to IcaA,
an N-acetylglucosamine transferase that functions to
polymerize UDP-N-acetylglusosamine units; and HmsF
has 23% identity and 41% similarity to IcaB, a poly (β-1, 6)
N-acetylglocosamine deacetylase that removes N-acetyl
groups from the extracellular PIA polymer (Götz, 2002).
Thus, it is likely that the Y. pestis hms gene products also
synthesize a PGA-like extracellular polysaccharide, but
its chemical structure remains to be determined.
The chromosomal hmsT and hmsP genes are
unlinked to the hmsHFRS operon and to each other but
are required for normal expression of the pigmentation
phenotype and biofilm formation (Hare and McDonough,
1999; Jones et al., 1999; Kirillina et al., 2004). Although
the biochemistry remains to be demonstrated, the
presence of specific domains within HmsT and HmsP
indicate their probable function. HmsT belongs to the
family of GGDEF domain proteins (Jones et al., 1999)
and is predicted to synthesize cyclic-di-GMP, a known
effector of extracellular polysaccharide production in other
bacteria (Kirillina et al., 2004; Ross et al., 1987; Ryjenkov
et al., 2005). HmsP belongs to the family of EAL domain
proteins and is predicted to have phosphodiesterase
activity that hydrolyzes cyclic-di-GMP (Kirillina et al.,
2004). Based on the presence of these domains and
their predicted catalytic activities, Kirillina et al. (2004)
proposed that HmsT and HmsP regulate Hms-dependent
extracellular polysaccharide production (and therefore
biofilm formation) by coordinately controlling the level of
the cyclic-di-GMP activator. Transcription of the hmsT
and the hmsHFRS operons is not affected by growth
temperature; however, protein levels of HmsT, HmsH,
and HmsR are much lower in Y. pestis grown at 37°
than at 26°C, which likely accounts for the temperaturedependence of the pigmentation phenotype (Perry et al.,
The amino acid sequence comparisons indicate
that the hms genes encode products that synthesize
the extracellular matrix of a biofilm. A bacterial biofilm
is a complex, compact community of cells enclosed
in an extracellular matrix, often attached to a surface
(Costerton et al., 1995). Biofilms can form in spite of high
shear forces and rapid currents, and are produced in
vivo, particularly on implanted medical devices, by many
bacterial pathogens (Costerton et al., 1999). Previous
investigations have shown that the dense aggregates of
Y. pestis that develop in the flea midgut and block the
proventriculus are surrounded by an extracellular matrix,
fitting the operational definition of a biofilm (Hinnebusch
et al., 1998a; 2002a; Jarrett et al., 2004). The ability of Y.
pestis to produce an extracellular matrix in the flea, along
with the ability to block the proventriculus, depends on the
hms genes. The role of the individual hms genes in this in
vivo phenotypes have not been systematically studied, but
mutation of hmsR or hmsT eliminates or greatly reduces
the ability of Y. pestis to block fleas (Hinnebusch et al.,
1996; and unpublished data). The hms genes are also
required for the ability of Y. pestis to produce an adherent
biofilm on the surface of a glass flowcell, and to synthesize
an extracellular material observed by scanning electron
microscopy (Jarrett et al., 2004). Like pigmentation, the in
vitro biofilm and extracellular material are only produced
at low temperatures and not at 37°C. Darby et al. (2002)
and Joshua et al. (2003) have also shown that Y. pestis
and Y. pseudotuberculosis produce biofilm-like growth on
agar plates that accumulates on the external mouthparts
204 Hinnebusch
of Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes placed on them,
and that this phenotype is hms-dependent.
Taken together, the genetic, in vitro, and in vivo
observations strongly suggest that Y. pestis forms
an hms-dependent biofilm to infect the hydrophobic,
acellular surface of the flea’s proventricular spines, and in
this way overcomes the rhythmic, pulsating action of the
proventricular valve and the inward flow of blood during
feeding that would otherwise counteract transmission by
washing the bacteria backwards into the midgut. Given
the homology between the Y. pestis hms genes and the
staphylococcal ica genes, it seems likely that the function
of the hms gene products is to synthesize an extracellular
polysaccharide required for biofilm development. The
composition of the extracellular matrix that surrounds the
Y. pestis biofilm in the flea is unknown, but appears to
contain flea midgut-derived lipid components as well as
hms-dependent components (Jarrett et al., 2004). The
hms genes do not appear to be required in the mammal;
thus, their primary biological function is to enable fleaborne transmission (Hinnebusch et al., 1996; Lillard et
al., 1999). Transmission of Leishmania parasites also
depends on a foregut-blocking phenomenon in the sandfly
vector (Stierhof et al., 1999), but Y. pestis is unique
among bacteria characterized to date in using a biofilm
mechanism to enable arthropod-borne transmission. In
retrospect, the first hint that the hms genes pertained to
biofilm formation was the observation in the original paper
by Jackson and Burrows (1956a) that cells in pigmented
colonies resist resuspension and remain bound together
in densely packed masses. Surgalla (1960) also observed
that another aspect of the pigmentation phenotype is
the production of a substance in liquid cultures at room
temperature that promotes autoaggregation and pellicle
formation on the sides of the culture vessel – typical of
biofilm formation.
The Y. pestis plasminogen activator and
dissemination following flea-borne transmission
Like murine toxin and the Hms pigmentation phenotype,
the biological functions attributed to the Y. pestis
plasminogen activator (Pla) have undergone revision.
The pla gene is on the 9.5-kb Y. pestis plasmid referred to
as pPCP1, pPst or pPla (Sodeinde and Goguen, 1988).
It encodes a surface protease associated with increased
tissue invasiveness and systemic spread of the bacteria
(Korhonen et al., 2004). Pla is considered to be an essential
factor for the flea-borne route of transmission because it
greatly enhances dissemination following subcutaneous
injection, which is assumed to mimic transmission by
fleas (Sodeinde et al., 1992). The requirement for Pla for
dissemination from peripheral infection sites may not be
universally true for all Y. pestis strains or for all animals,
however (Samoilova et al., 1996; Welkos et al., 1997).
A prominent role for Pla in proventricular blockage of
the flea has been proposed previously. The extracellular
matrix that embeds the blocking masses of Y. pestis
in the flea has often been assumed to be a fibrin clot
derived from the flea’s blood meal. It was also known
that proventricular blockage does not develop normally
in fleas kept at elevated temperatures, which helps
explain striking epidemiological observations that flea-
borne bubonic plague epidemics terminate abruptly with
the onset of hot, dry weather (Cavanaugh and Marshall,
1972). Cavanaugh (1971) hypothesized that Pla activity
could explain both phenomena. Pla synthesis is not
temperature-dependent, but its plasminogen activator
ability that leads to fibrinolysis is much greater at 37°C than
at temperatures below 28°C (McDonough and Falkow,
1989). In fact, Pla has an opposite procoagulant activity at
low temperatures, although this fibrin clot-forming ability
is weak and is detected only in rabbit plasma and not in
mouse, rat, guinea pig, squirrel, or human plasma (Jawetz
and Meyer, 1944; Beesley et al., 1967). Nevertheless, it
was hypothesized that this low-temperature activity of
Pla formed what was presumed to be the fibrin matrix
of the blocking mass of Y. pestis in the flea. The clotdissolving plasminogen activator function was invoked to
explain why blockage does not develop in fleas at higher
temperatures. McDonough et al. (1993) later reported that
Pla+ Y. pestis caused greater mortality in fleas than an
isogenic Pla- mutant, and attributed this to an increased
blockage rate. Blockage was not directly monitored in that
study, however, and the mortality occurred only four days
after infection, well before blockage would be expected
to occur.
When the Cavanaugh hypothesis was put to the
test, it was found that Pla is not required for normal
proventricular blockage to develop in the flea (Hinnebusch
et al., 1998a). Hms+ Y. pestis strains lacking pPst were
able to infect and block X. cheopis fleas as well as the
wild-type parent strain. Both Pla+ and Pla– strains failed to
block fleas kept at 30°C, even though midgut colonization
rates were little affected by temperature; in other words,
the identical in vivo phenotype as seen for Hms– Y. pestis.
Thus, the inability of Y. pestis to block fleas kept at 30°C
can be fully explained by temperature dependence of
the Hms phenotype. Furthermore, the presumption that
flea-blocking masses of Y. pestis are embedded in a
fibrin matrix is inconsistent with the fact that the matrix
is not degraded by proteases or the fibrinolytic enzyme
plasmin. Therefore, the hms-dependent biofilm model of
proventricular blockage better fits the available data than
the Pla-based fibrin clot model.
Insect pathogen-related genes in Y. pestis and Y.
Like most bacterial genomes, the Y. pestis genome
contains several loci that appear to have been introduced
by lateral transfer from unrelated organisms. Among
these are several homologs of known insecticidal toxin
complex (Tc) genes of bacterial pathogens of insects,
and a homolog of a baculovirus enhancin protease gene
required for insect pathogenesis, which conceivably could
influence Y. pestis interaction with the flea (Parkhill et al.,
2001). In beginning efforts to assess the role of these
genes, fleas were infected with Y. pestis strains containing
specific mutations in the baculovirus enhancin homolog
and tcaA, a homolog of one of the Tc genes. Both mutants
infected and blocked X. cheopis fleas normally, indicating
that these two genes are not important for interaction with
the flea (B. J. Hinnebusch and R. D. Perry, unpublished).
Many of the insect pathogen-related genes are also present
in Y. pseudotuberculosis; therefore, their acquisition
Y. pestis Transmission Factors 205
appears to predate the divergence of Y. pestis. When
outside the host in soil and water, Y. pseudotuberculosis
would be expected to come into contact with and even
be ingested by insects and other invertebrates, and the
insecticidal toxins may help the bacteria survive those
encounters. Because Y. pestis transmission depends on
chronic infection of the flea gut, overt toxicity would be
counterproductive. Thus, it seems likely that insect toxicity
would be lost or moderated in Y. pestis.
Y. pestis at the host–vector interface
Successful transmission of an arthropod-borne agent
and subsequent infection depends on a complex coevolved interaction between pathogen, vector, and host
that has not been well-characterized for any arthropodborne disease. Plague is initiated during the brief
encounter between an infectious flea and a vertebrate
host. For practical reasons, intradermal or subcutaneous
inoculation by needle and syringe of in vitro-grown Y.
pestis is routinely used for pathogenesis studies in animal
models in lieu of flea-borne transmission. While this is a
reasonable challenge method which may be adequate for
most purposes, certain aspects of the flea-bacteria-host
transmission interface are unique, and have unknown
effects on the host-pathogen interaction and the initiation
of disease.
Feeding mechanism of fleas and the
microenvironment of the transmission site
Two basic strategies have been described for the manner
in which blood-feeding arthropods acquire a blood meal
(Lavoipierre, 1965). Vessel feeders, such as triatomine
bugs, penetrate the skin and cannulate a superficial blood
vessel with their mouthparts before they begin to feed.
In contrast, pool feeders, such as ticks and tsetse flies,
lacerate blood vessels with their mouthparts as they probe,
and feed from the resulting extravascular hemorrhage.
Fleas, like mosquitoes, were originally classified as
vessel feeders, but this may be an oversimplification. The
flea mouthparts include a pair of thin serrated laciniae that
act as cutting blades to perforate the dermis. Alternating,
rapid contractions and thrusts of the left and right laciniae
pierce the skin, and this pneumatic drill-like cutting motion
continues as the mouthparts move vertically and laterally
in the dermal tissue during probing (Wenk, 1980), an
activity that can cause hemorrhage. When blood is
located, the laciniae and epipharynx come together to
form a feeding channel, and feeding ensues. Whether
the tip of the mouthparts is inserted into a vessel or in
an extravascular pool of blood has obvious implications
for plague pathogenesis. If intravascular feeding occurs,
Y. pestis might be regurgitated directly into the blood
stream (i.v. transmission). If extravascular feeding occurs,
intradermal transmission is the appropriate model (the
flea mouthparts are not long enough to penetrate into the
subcutaneous tissue). The most careful observations of
flea feeding (Deoras and Prasad, 1967; Lavoipierre and
Hamachi, 1961) suggest that fleas can suck extravascular
blood that leaks from a capillary, but prefer to feed directly
from a blood vessel. Whether blocked fleas show the same
discretion, however, is unknown. The usual progression
of bubonic plague, in which Y. pestis can produce a
primary lesion at the fleabite site and disseminates first
to the local draining lymph node, seems to better fit an
intradermal transmission model.
Flea saliva is also secreted into the bite site. The
saliva of all blood-feeding arthropod vectors contains
anticoagulants, and may contain other factors that
influence the outcome of transmission. For example,
a component of sandfly saliva greatly enhances the
infectivity of Leishmania (Titus and Ribeiro, 1988). Flea
saliva is known to contain the anticoagulant apyrase,
an enzyme which acts to inhibit platelet and neutrophil
aggregation (Ribeiro et al., 1990), but this is the only
component that has been identified to date.
The transmission phenotype of Y. pestis
The phenotype of Y. pestis as it exits the flea and enters
the mammal is clearly different from in vitro growth
phenotypes. As described in previous sections, Y. pestis
growth in the flea resembles a biofilm and is associated
with an extracellular membrane. The infectious units
transmitted by the flea may consist not only of individual
Y. pestis, but small clumps of bacteria derived from the
periphery of the proventriculus-blocking mass. If pieces
of the biofilm are regurgitated by fleas, the bacteria
within them may be protected from the initial encounter
with the host innate immune response, because bacteria
embedded in a biofilm have been shown to be more
resistant to uptake or killing by phagocytes (Donlan and
Costerton, 2002). Because known antiphagocytic factors
such as the F1 capsule and the Type III secretion system
are not produced by Y. pestis at the low temperature
of the flea gut (Straley and Perry, 1995; Perry and
Fetherston, 1997), the extracellular matrix associated with
growth in the flea may provide initial protection until the
known antiphagocytic virulence factors are synthesized.
Secondarily, regurgitated aggregates that are larger than
the diameter of the intradermal blood vessels would
preclude direct intravenous transmission.
In nature, Y. pestis in a particular phenotype is
transmitted along with flea saliva into an intradermal
microenvironment. Details of the flea-bacteria-host
interface during and after transmission have not been
characterized, and cannot be satisfactorily mimicked by
transmission using a needle and syringe. Consequently,
aspects of host-parasite interactions specific to the unique
context of the fleabite site are unknown and merit future
Evolution of arthropod-borne transmission
Y. pestis provides a fascinating case study of how a
bacterial pathogen can evolve a vector-borne route of
transmission. Given the short evolutionary timeframe in
which it occurred, the change from an enteric, food- and
water-borne pathogen to systemic, insect-borne pathogen
was too abrupt to result from the slow evolutionary process
of random mutation of individual genes leading to natural
selection. Instead, more rapid evolutionary processes
were responsible, such as horizontal gene transfer and
the fine-tuning of existing genetic pathways to perform
new functions.
Carniel (2003) has proposed a sequential evolutionary
scenario for the switch to vector-borne transmission in the
206 Hinnebusch
yersiniae. Because the ymt (pldA) gene enhances survival
in the flea digestive tract, a likely first step was acquisition
of the 100-kb pFra plasmid by horizontal transfer to
generate a Y. pseudotuberculosis (pFra) or pre-pestis
1 clone. Y. pseudotuberculosis can cause septicemia in
rodents, so it probably was taken up by fleas periodically.
This would have been a dead end, until the hypothetical
pre-pestis 1 clone acquired the PLD activity encoded
on the pFra replicon, which allowed it to survive in and
colonize the flea midgut.
A second necessary step in the evolution of flea-borne
transmission took advantage of a pre-existing biofilmforming capacity, which involves the hms genes. Y. pestis
makes an hms-mediated biofilm to produce an obstructing
infection in the proventricular valve, which is required for
efficient transmission. The hms genes are present in Y.
pseudotuberculosis, but, curiously, most isolates that have
been tested do not exhibit the pigmentation phenotype
(Brubaker, 1991). Some Y. pseudotuberculosis strains
do show the Congo red-binding pigmentation phenotype
in vitro, but all Y. pseudotuberculosis that have been
tested, whether pigmented or not, are unable to block
the proventriculus of X. cheopis (B. J. Hinnebusch,
unpublished). Thus, a separate, as yet undiscovered
genetic change may have occurred in pre-pestis 1 to
extend its biofilm-forming capacity to include the flea gut
environment. The presumptive change likely affected the
outer membrane in such a way as to enhance aggregate
formation on the hydrophobic proventricular spines in the
context of the flea digestive tract milieu.
A third important step in the evolution of fleaborne transmission occurred when the progenitor clone
acquired the small plasmid containing the pla gene, which
is thought to enable Y. pestis to disseminate from the
fleabite site after transmission. The clone containing both
of the new Y. pestis-specific plasmids has been referred
to as pre-pestis 2 by Carniel (2003). Given the ecology of
the Y. pseudotuberculosis ancestor, horizontal transfer of
pFra and pPst could have occurred in a mammal, a flea,
or the environment. Of course, it is likewise impossible to
know with certainty the order in which the plasmids were
transferred, or the plasmid donors, although molecular
biology analyses may provide some clues. For example,
the 100-kb pFra shares major sequence identity with
a Salmonella Typhi plasmid, suggesting that the Y.
pseudotuberculosis ancestor acquired what became pFra
from a Salmonella donor (Prentice et al., 2001). This
horizontal transfer to generate the Y. pseudotuberculosis
(pFra) clone may have occurred in the digestive tract of a
rodent, since both bacteria are enteric pathogens. On the
other hand, plasmid transfer by conjugation occurs readily
in mixed bacterial biofilms, both in the environment and in
the flea gut (Hinnebusch et al., 2002a).
Coevolution of flea-borne transmission and
increased virulence in Y. pestis
The evolutionary path that led to flea-borne transmission
also led to Y. pestis becoming one of the most virulent
and feared pathogens of human history. It is probably
no accident that increased virulence coevolved with
vector-borne transmission. In fact, reliance on the flea
for transmission imposed new selective pressures that
would have strongly favored this. Some consideration of
the dynamics of the Y. pestis-flea relationship serve to
reinforce this point (Fig. 4). First, flea-borne transmission
is actually quite inefficient, which may reflect the fact that
Y. pestis has only recently adapted to its insect host. The
number of Y. pestis needed to infect 50% of susceptible
mammals (the ID50, often referred to as the minimum
infectious dose) is the same as the 50% lethal dose (LD50)
– less than 10 (Perry and Fetherston, 1997). In contrast,
the ID50 of Y. pestis for X. cheopis is about 5,000 bacteria
(Lorange et al., 2005). Fleas take small blood meals
(0.1–0.3 μl), so Y. pestis must achieve a level of >107 per
milliliter in the peripheral blood in order to have a 50%
chance of infecting its vector. Bacteremias of 108 to 109 per
milliliter are routinely present in moribund white laboratory
mice (Douglas and Wheeler, 1943). The concept of a very
high threshold level of bacteremia, below which infection
of feeding fleas does not occur or is rare, is supported
by the observations of several investigators (Douglas and
Wheeler, 1943; Pollitzer, 1954; Kartman and Quan, 1964).
Thus, Y. pestis does not infect the flea very efficiently in
the first place, and this would have been strong selective
pressure favoring more invasive, and consequently, more
virulent strains able to produce the severe bacteremia
that typifies plague.
A second weak link in the Y. pestis life cycle is that,
even after successful infection of the vector, subsequent
transmission is not very efficient. Not all infected fleas
develop transmissible proventricular infections – for X.
cheopis, the rate is only about 50%, and this rate can be
much lower for other flea species (Wheeler and Douglas,
1945; Burroughs, 1947; Pollitzer, 1954). Furthermore, it
is well established that the bite of a blocked flea does not
always result in disease. Past studies report that individual
blocked X. cheopis fleas that feed on a susceptible host
transmit plague only about 50% of the time (Burroughs,
1947). Very few studies have addressed the number of Y.
pestis transmitted by a single infectious fleabite. Burroughs
(1947) triturated and
plated mouse-skin
biopsies taken
from the site where a blocked flea had been allowed to
Fig. 4. Dynamics of flea-borne transmission of plague. The high ID50 of Y.
pestis for fleas is compensated for by the ability to produce a high-density
septicemia in the rodent. The inefficient transmission by blocked fleas is
compensated for by a low ID50 (LD50) from a peripheral inoculation site.
Y. pestis Transmission Factors 207
attempt to feed. Only one of thirty samples was positive,
which contained 88 Y. pestis colony-forming units (CFU).
This number was multiplied by a factor to compensate
for the low plating efficiency from other skin samples into
which known numbers of Y. pestis had been injected,
to calculate an estimate of 11,000 to 24,000 bacteria
transmitted by the flea. However, this estimate was derived
indirectly from a single positive sample, which seems less
than satisfactory. We recently reexamined this topic by
allowing individual blocked X. cheopis fleas to feed on a
mouse or an artificial feeding device and quantifying the
number of Y. pestis transmitted. Only 45% of the fleabites
resulted in transmission, and the median number of Y.
pestis transmitted was less than 100 (Lorange et al.,
2005). This rather erratic transmission, frequently involving
only a small number of bacteria, would have favored the
selection of more invasive clones (such as the ancestral
pPla+ clone), able to successfully disseminate from the
fleabite site even from a small initial dose.
Because reliance on the flea vector to complete
the Y. pestis life cycle is contingent upon the ability to
produce a high-density bacteremia and to invade from a
small infectious dose in the skin, the evolution of vectorborne transmission and of increased virulence would
have been mutually reinforcing. Parasite evolution is often
assumed to evolve towards commensalism, or a state of
peaceful coexistence with the host. Actually, the degree
of virulence that is evolved by a successful parasite is
functionally coupled with transmissibility (Ewald, 1983).
That is, pathogens will tend to evolve to a level of virulence
that optimizes their chance of successful transmission.
Paul Ewald (1983) has argued that parasites transmitted
by blood-feeding arthropods pay little cost for harming
their hosts, and may actually benefit by being virulent.
The extensive reproduction and hematogenous spread
associated with severe disease increases the probability
that a blood-feeding vector would acquire an infectious
dose; and host immobilization and morbidity would not
hinder, and may even enhance, the ability of a vector to
find the host and feed to repletion.
The risk for a pathogen as virulent as Y. pestis is
killing the host too quickly for transmission to occur. Y.
pestis may have gotten away with the risky strategy of
being rapidly fatal because most mammals maintain a
more or less permanent flea population in their fur and in
their burrows. It is not unusual for a single rodent to carry
5 to 80 fleas, with more than 100 fleas present in the nest
or burrow, and it is simply a fact of life for most rodents
to experience daily fleabites throughout their lives (Traub,
1972). Thus, Y. pestis does not have to rely on a chance
encounter with a flying vector like a mosquito. Even if there
are only a few hours between the development of highdensity septicemia and death, there is good probability
that one or more resident fleas will take an infectious blood
meal during that short window of time. Because fleas do
not readily leave their host mammal, killing the host may
actually be important to Y. pestis transmission. Brubaker
(2000) has made the point that death of the host compels
the resident infected fleas to seek a new, healthy host – a
necessary step to complete the transmission cycle.
Arthropod-transmitted pathogens may be indifferent
to or even benefit from producing morbidity and mortality
in their mammalian hosts, but infections in the arthropod
vector are rarely symptomatic. As a rule it would be
counterproductive to impair the health of the vector they
rely on for transmission. For example, malaria parasites
do not cause morbidity in the mosquitoes that transmit
them to new hosts. Y. pestis breaks this rule – it causes
an overwhelming, fatal infection in the flea as well as the
mammal. A single blocked flea contains greater than 106
Y. pestis on average, and proventricular blockage leads
to dehydration and death by starvation within a few days
(Hinnebusch et al., 1998b; Kartman and Prince, 1956;
Pollitzer, 1954)). During this time, however, a blocked
flea will make persistent, frequent attempts to feed. A
normal flea probes the skin and feeds to repletion within
a few minutes. A blocked flea, in contrast, will try to take a
blood meal in one location for a period of several minutes,
then withdraw, move to another location, and try again.
As it gradually starves, this process is repeated many
times. Finally, the dehydrated blocked flea often remains
with its mouthparts embedded in the skin for an hour or
more, expending its last bit of energy in a futile attempt
to satisfy its appetite. This anomalous feeding behavior
provides multiple opportunities for transmission to occur
before the flea dies, somewhat analogous to the manner
in which the altered behavior of a rabid dog enhances the
transmission of rabies virus.
Y. pestis exhibits a distinct life stage in its flea vector. The
barriers to infection and the environmental conditions it
faces in the flea digestive tract are quite different from
those encountered in the mammalian host. Consequently,
the development of a transmissible infection requires a
distinct subset of genes. None of the known mammalian
virulence factors that have been tested (the F1 capsule,
pla, the type III secretion system encoded on the pYV
virulence plasmid, and the HPI) are required in X. cheopis
(Hinnebusch et al., 1996; 1998). Conversely, the two
genetic loci (ymt and hms) that have been shown to be
required for the flea-specific phenotype are not required
for virulence in the mammal. Thus, a distinction can be
made between Y. pestis genes required for pathogenesis
in the mammal (virulence factors) and the genes
required to produce a transmissible infection in the flea
(transmission factors).
When a flea takes up Y. pestis in a blood meal, the
bacteria experience a drop in temperature from 37°C to
the ambient temperature of the flea. This temperature
shift appears to be an important environmental signal
for the bacteria to regulate gene expression appropriate
to the invertebrate or vertebrate host. The expression of
many Y. pestis virulence factors is upregulated at 37°C
compared to room temperature (Straley and Perry, 1995;
Perry and Fetherston, 1997), whereas the upregulation of
the Hms phenotype and the ymt gene at room temperature
compared to 37°C was a predictive initial clue that their
biological role might occur in the flea. With the advent of
DNA microarray and proteomics technologies, the global
effect of the temperature shift from mammal to flea on
Y. pestis gene expression can be analyzed, which may
identify new candidate transmission factors (Han et al.,
2004; Motin et al., 2004).
208 Hinnebusch
In this review, I have focused on recent work using
X. cheopis as the animal model and genetically defined
strains of Y. pestis KIM (biovar Medievalis) and 195/P
(biovar Orientalis). Earlier work, particularly by Russian
investigators, led to often contradictory conclusions,
with some studies suggesting a role in flea infection or
blockage for the F1 capsule and Pla virulence factors, and
others finding no role (Kutyrev et al., 1992; McDonough
et al., 1993; Anisimov, 1999). Such reported differences
in host–parasite relationships have yet to be resolved,
but if nothing else serve as a reminder of the ecological
complexity of plague, which can involve over 200 species
of mammals and their fleas (Pollitzer, 1954). Factors that
could explain contradictory data include differences in: 1)
the digestive tract physiology and proventricular anatomy
of the various flea species investigated; 2) the biochemical
composition of the blood of different rodent species; 3) Y.
pestis strains used; and 4) the temperature at which the
fleas were maintained (Table 1).
Three discrete genetic steps that led to the recent
evolutionary transition of Y. pestis from an enteric to a
flea-borne route of transmission can now be identified.
Two of them involved horizontal transfer of the ymtand pla-harboring plasmids that are unique to Y. pestis.
The third step involved adapting the pre-existing hms
chromosomal genes to a new function – biofouling of
the proventriculus to interfere with its normal valvular
operation. Several unanswered questions remain.
The biochemical mechanisms of action of the PLD
and the Hms proteins in the flea have yet to be fully
characterized. Additional transmission factors probably
remain to be discovered before a complete recounting
of the adaptation to the flea vector can be told. The Y.
pestis genome also contains many pseudogenes, and
the consequence, if any, of this large-scale gene loss
on the interaction with the flea remains to be explored.
Careful comparison of Y. pseudotuberculosis and Y.
pestis genomes should provide important insights into
these and other questions. Identifying and characterizing
the molecular mechanisms that ensued from the specific
genetic changes responsible for flea-borne transmission
will ultimately provide an instructive case study in the
evolution of bacterial pathogenesis.
I thank Clayton Jarrett, Roberto Rebeil, and Florent
Sebbane for their contributions to the work described in
this review and for discussions about it. Robert Perry and
Andrey Anisimov kindly provided preprints of in press
manuscripts. Research in my laboratory is supported in
part by a New Scholars in Global Infectious Diseases
award from the Ellison Medical Foundation.
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